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Victory thus gained, the woman of Bulika began to speak about the city, and talked much of its defenceless condition, of the wickedness of its princess, of the cowardice of its inhabitants. In a few days the children chattered of nothing but Bulika, although indeed they had not the least notion of what a city was. Then first I became aware of the design of the woman, although not yet of its motive.
The idea of taking possession of the place, recommended itself greatly to Lona—and to me also. The children were now so rapidly developing faculty, that I could see no serious obstacle to the success of the enterprise. For the terrible Lilith—woman or leopardess, I knew her one vulnerable point, her doom through her daughter, and the influence the ancient prophecy had upon the citizens: surely whatever in the enterprise could be called risk, was worth taking! Successful,—and who could doubt their success?—must not the Little Ones, from a crowd of children, speedily become a youthful people, whose government and influence would be all for righteousness? Ruling the wicked with a rod of iron, would they not be the redemption of the nation?
At the same time, I have to confess that I was not without views of personal advantage, not without ambition in the undertaking. It was just, it seemed to me, that Lona should take her seat on the throne that had been her mother’s, and natural that she should make of me her consort and minister. For me, I would spend my life in her service; and between us, what might we not do, with such a core to it as the Little Ones, for the development of a noble state?
I confess also to an altogether foolish dream of opening a commerce in gems between the two worlds—happily impossible, for it could have done nothing but harm to both.
Calling to mind the appeal of Adam, I suggested to Lona that to find them water might perhaps expedite the growth of the Little Ones. She judged it prudent, however, to leave that alone for the present, as we did not know what its first consequences might be; while, in the course of time, it would almost certainly subject them to a new necessity.
“They are what they are without it!” she said: “when we have the city, we will search for water!”
We began, therefore, and pushed forward our preparations, constantly reviewing the merry troops and companies. Lona gave her attention chiefly to the commissariat, while I drilled the little soldiers, exercised them in stone-throwing, taught them the use of some other weapons, and did all I could to make warriors of them. The main difficulty was to get them to rally to their flag the instant the call was sounded. Most of them were armed with slings, some of the bigger boys with bows and arrows. The bigger girls carried aloe-spikes, strong as steel and sharp as needles, fitted to longish shafts—rather formidable weapons. Their sole duty was the charge of such as were too small to fight.
Lona had herself grown a good deal, but did not seem aware of it: she had always been, as she still was, the tallest! Her hair was much longer, and she was become almost a woman, but not one beauty of childhood had she outgrown. When first we met after our long separation, she laid down her infant, put her arms round my neck, and clung to me silent, her face glowing with gladness: the child whimpered; she sprang to him, and had him in her bosom instantly. To see her with any thoughtless, obstinate, or irritable little one, was to think of a tender grandmother. I seemed to have known her for ages—for always—from before time began! I hardly remembered my mother, but in my mind’s eye she now looked like Lona; and if I imagined sister or child, invariably she had the face of Lona! My every imagination flew to her; she was my heart’s wife! She hardly ever sought me, but was almost always within sound of my voice. What I did or thought, I referred constantly to her, and rejoiced to believe that, while doing her work in absolute independence, she was most at home by my side. Never for me did she neglect the smallest child, and my love only quickened my sense of duty. To love her and to do my duty, seemed, not indeed one, but inseparable. She might suggest something I should do; she might ask me what she ought to do; but she never seemed to suppose that I, any more than she, would like to do, or could care about anything except what must be done. Her love overflowed upon me—not in caresses, but in a closeness of recognition which I can compare to nothing but the devotion of a divine animal.
I never told her anything about her mother.
The wood was full of birds, the splendour of whose plumage, while it took nothing from their song, seemed almost to make up for the lack of flowers—which, apparently, could not grow without water. Their glorious feathers being everywhere about in the forest, it came into my heart to make from them a garment for Lona. While I gathered, and bound them in overlapping rows, she watched me with evident appreciation of my choice and arrangement, never asking what I was fashioning, but evidently waiting expectant the result of my work. In a week or two it was finished—a long loose mantle, to fasten at the throat and waist, with openings for the arms.
I rose and put it on her. She rose, took it off, and laid it at my feet—I imagine from a sense of propriety. I put it again on her shoulders, and showed her where to put her arms through. She smiled, looked at the feathers a little and stroked them—again took it off and laid it down, this time by her side. When she left me, she carried it with her, and I saw no more of it for some days. At length she came to me one morning wearing it, and carrying another garment which she had fashioned similarly, but of the dried leaves of a tough evergreen. It had the strength almost of leather, and the appearance of scale-armour. I put it on at once, and we always thereafter wore those garments when on horseback.
For, on the outskirts of the forest, had appeared one day a troop of full-grown horses, with which, as they were nowise alarmed at creatures of a shape so different from their own, I had soon made friends, and two of the finest I had trained for Lona and myself. Already accustomed to ride a small one, her delight was great when first she looked down from the back of an animal of the giant kind; and the horse showed himself proud of the burden he bore. We exercised them every day until they had such confidence in us as to obey instantly and fear nothing; after which we always rode them at parade and on the march.
The undertaking did indeed at times appear to me a foolhardy one, but the confidence of the woman of Bulika, real or simulated, always overcame my hesitancy. The princess’s magic, she insisted, would prove powerless against the children; and as to any force she might muster, our animal-allies alone would assure our superiority: she was herself, she said, ready, with a good stick, to encounter any two men of Bulika. She confessed to not a little fear of the leopardess, but I was myself ready for her. I shrank, however, from carrying all the children with us.
“Would it not be better,” I said, “that you remained in the forest with your baby and the smallest of the Little Ones?”
She answered that she greatly relied on the impression the sight of them would make on the women, especially the mothers.
“When they see the darlings,” she said, “their hearts will be taken by storm; and I must be there encouraging them to make a stand! If there be a remnant of hardihood in the place, it will be found among the women!”
“You must not encumber yourself,” I said to Lona, “with any of the children; you will be wanted everywhere!”
For there were two babies besides the woman’s, and even on horseback she had almost always one in her arms.
“I do not remember ever being without a child to take care of,” she answered; “but when we reach the city, it shall be as you wish!”
Her confidence in one who had failed so unworthily, shamed me. But neither had I initiated the movement, nor had I any ground for opposing it; I had no choice, but must give it the best help I could! For myself, I was ready to live or die with Lona. Her humility as well as her trust humbled me, and I gave myself heartily to her purposes.
Our way lying across a grassy plain, there was no need to take food for the horses, or the two cows which would accompany us for the infants; but the elephants had to be provided for. True, the grass was as good for them as for those other animals, but it was short, and with their one-fingered long noses, they could not pick enough for a single meal. We had, therefore, set the whole colony to gather grass and make hay, of which the elephants themselves could carry a quantity sufficient to last them several days, with the supplement of what we would gather fresh every time we halted. For the bears we stored nuts, and for ourselves dried plenty of fruits. We had caught and tamed several more of the big horses, and now having loaded them and the elephants with these provisions, we were prepared to set out.
Then Lona and I held a general review, and I made them a little speech. I began by telling them that I had learned a good deal about them, and knew now where they came from.
“We did not come from anywhere,” they cried, interrupting me; “we are here!”
I told them that every one of them had a mother of his own, like the mother of the last baby; that I believed they had all been brought from Bulika when they were so small that they could not now remember it; that the wicked princess there was so afraid of babies, and so determined to destroy them, that their mothers had to carry them away and leave them where she could not find them; and that now we were going to Bulika, to find their mothers, and deliver them from the bad giantess.
“But I must tell you,” I continued, “that there is danger before us, for, as you know, we may have to fight hard to take the city.”
“We can fight! we are ready!” cried the boys.
“Yes, you can,” I returned, “and I know you will: mothers are worth fighting for! Only mind, you must all keep together.”
“Yes, yes; we’ll take care of each other,” they answered. “Nobody shall touch one of us but his own mother!”
“You must mind, every one, to do immediately what your officers tell you!”
“We will, we will!—Now we’re quite ready! Let us go!”
“Another thing you must not forget,” I went on: “when you strike, be sure you make it a downright swinging blow; when you shoot an arrow, draw it to the head; when you sling a stone, sling it strong and straight.”
“That we will!” they cried with jubilant, fearless shout.
“Perhaps you will be hurt!”
“We don’t mind that!—Do we, boys?”
“Not a bit!”
“Some of you may very possibly be killed!” I said.
“I don’t mind being killed!” cried one of the finest of the smaller boys: he rode a beautiful little bull, which galloped and jumped like a horse.
“I don’t either! I don’t either!” came from all sides.
Then Lona, queen and mother and sister of them all, spoke from her big horse by my side: “I would give my life,” she said, “to have my mother! She might kill me if she liked! I should just kiss her and die!”
“Come along, boys!” cried a girl. “We’re going to our mothers!”
A pang went through my heart.—But I could not draw back; it would be moral ruin to the Little Ones!